The Tomb of Charles Baudelaire

by Stéphane Mallarmé
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

In the early period of his poetic career, Stéphane Mallarmé derived much of his use of imagery from the example of Charles Baudelaire’s verse. His homage to Baudelaire, however, written near the end of Mallarmé’s life, while still retaining the sonnet form and a few images that may have been found in the earlier style, attains a complexity of expression much beyond it.

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The traditional Petrarchan sonnet is part of a loosely related sequence of poems honoring, also, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Verlaine, and Richard Wagner. Each sonnet uses the image of a tombstone or other object that, along with the sonnet itself, will form an enduring monument to the man it honors.

In “The Tomb of Charles Baudelaire,” the initial image is not that of the tomb but of the dead poet himself. The “buried temple” must be that of Baudelaire’s body, which, though already buried in the Montparnasse cemetery, still has mud and rubies issuing from its mouth, a reference to both the filth and the beauty contained in Baudelaire’s poetic utterances. The analogy with the “idol Anubis” further underlines the theme of burial in that the Egyptian jackal-god was said to preside over tombs.

In the second quatrain, the imagery changes entirely. Multiple details suggest the presence of a prostitute in the street, although the woman is never specifically named in the poem. This technique of suggestion, common in Mallarmé’s work, evokes the woman through elements of her anatomy—the “lock of hair” and “pubis”—emblems of her beauty and her sexuality.

Yet la mèche may refer either to a lock of hair or to the wick of a lamp. The ambiguity remains in the line in which the word immediately follows “the gas,” an apparent allusion to a street lamp by the light of which one might see the prostitute. Whether mèche refers to hair or wick, the adjective louche remains applicable, with its own multiple meanings of “ambiguous” or “suspicious.” The lamplight flickers on the dubious activities of the woman. Similarly, the verb “twists” might refer to the twisting of either the wick or the lock of hair. This exploitation of the dual meanings of words, frequent in Mallarmé’s work, reflects his belief that words related by sound might be related in meaning.

In the sestet, Mallarmé finally reaches the image of Baudelaire’s tomb, “the marble,” against the background of which the other images of these lines appear. Initially ambiguous, the phrase “come elle se rasseoir” would be easy to read as an image of the prostitute sitting on the marble tomb. Yet, just as the images of the two quatrains are separated by a discontinuity, those of the sestet form a coherent unit. If one looks ahead for a feminine noun, “Celle son Ombre” identifies this presence as that of Baudelaire’s ghost, appropriately remaining at his tomb.

The emptiness of death appears in the image of the dry branch that alone will serve as a votive, or object symbolic of devotion, to the soul of the poet. The poem also portrays death as an ambiguous state, in which the soul seems present within “the veil that surrounds it” but is at the same time “absent.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

While in this later poem Mallarmé’s structures are no longer derived from Charles Baudelaire, many of the themes and images link him to the poet of Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1931). From the initial reference to “mud and rubies,” Mallarmé recalls both the moral dualism of Baudelaire’s work, in which beauty could be seen as derived from what was evil or unbeautiful, and the images of gemstones Baudelaire used in many of his poems.

The section of the poem closest to Baudelaire, however, is probably the second quatrain, with its motif of the prostitute. Baudelaire, who spent much of his life among the desperately poor people of Paris who would turn to prostitution or any other means for survival, frequently wrote with great compassion of their lives. Thus it seems appropriate that the only person near his tomb is a prostitute. She is there to ply her trade in an out-of-the-way place, and she is united by a spiritual link with the poet.

In addition, the prostitute echoes Baudelaire’s portrayal of women. The moral dualism of Flowers of Evil involves the poet’s quest for a visionary ideal. The woman, in whose eyes he believes at first he sees a reflection of heavenly light, becomes, as he soon realizes, a distraction and an impediment to his quest. Thus, the prostitute in Mallarmé’s poem, “the one who will wipe away the shames he has undergone,” corresponds to the woman who, for a time, allowed the poet to forget his separation from the ideal.

The “immortal pubis” may bring more than only a reference to an age-old profession, however; Baudelaire, like many other poets, attempted to immortalize woman’s beauty in his verse. In his sonnet “Beauty,” he describes female beauty as “eternal and mute,” like the stone of statues; in “Hymn to Beauty,” it could make “the universe less hideous and time less heavy.”

Baudelaire embraced the consoling presence of women, but ultimately believed this was to his loss. In the final poem of Flowers of Evil, “The Voyage,” the traveler looks back over a long life and says that his experiences have shown him only “the boring spectacle of immortal sin.” Sin, like the prostitute’s profession, may be immortal, but it does not have the same sort of immortality as poetry or as the human soul.

In this context, the last line of Mallarmé’s quatrain, “whose flight moves according to the streetlamp,” contains a sinister suggestion. This may refer merely to the flickering light of the gas lamp, which would cause shadows of those in the street to move. If, however, the “flight,” or experience inspired by the woman’s sexuality moves (in a way linked to a bed by the choice of the verb découche) according to the lamplight, it will not, in this wavering light, produce durable vision. The ephemeral form of these moving shadows anticipates the idea of death that closes the sestet. The poet will truly die if all that remains of his life is this fleeting image.

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